Bill Sniffin: ‘Stinkers And Clinkers’ Define A Lifetime In Business – A Game Of Survival

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes, "Nancy and I were involved in the ownership of 20 different newspapers, magazines, print shops, ad agencies, internet companies, and other operations over 50 years. We even founded three Wyoming newspapers."

Bill Sniffin

March 09, 20247 min read

Bill Sniffin lots of snow 1 16 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Most people know me as a journalist or even as an author – yet, the truth of the matter is, for most of my life, I have also been a businessman.

And during all these years in business, we have had our successes, which we cherish, and our failures, which we bemoan.

Nancy and I were involved in the ownership of 20 different newspapers, magazines, print shops, ad agencies, internet companies, and other operations over 50 years.

We even founded three Wyoming newspapers in Dubois, Jeffrey City, and the Wind River Indian Reservation.

We also were owners or partners in newspapers in Lander, Cody, Greybull, Green River, Bridger Valley, plus a big Cody print shop and a large ad agency called Wyoming Inc.

And then, there were three tourism companies: Wyoming Visitor, Rocky Mountain International, and Yellowstone Journal, plus a bunch of companies around the region and even a newspaper in Maui. And we still have a book publishing company. Whew!

For many years, I had been asked to be a guest lecturer at various entrepreneurial programs around the state called Next Level and Fast Track and other names.

‘Clinkers’ And ‘Stinkers’

Most of my talks centered on my successes with just a little time spent on what I called “stinkers and clinkers.” When it came time for questions, the budding entrepreneurs in the audience ALWAYS asked about the clinkers. The losers.

Finally, I ended up spending most of the time talking about these business failures – it seems that most aspiring business types have seen enough success, but to hear about real failures really piques their interest.

• They want to know how a perfectly good partnership can suddenly go bad? Being a good friend often does not translate into being a good partner.

• Or what happens when your worst-case scenario actually occurs? Or ends up being worse that you ever possibly imagined it to be? When the state and local economy hits rock bottom when all your leading industries shut down, as did in Lander in the 1980s.

• How could a business investment in Maui not be perfect? Welcome to the People’s Republic of Hawaii – an impossible place to do business. For me, anyway

• What do you do in the newspaper business when you fire your entire printing crew on the spot for smoking pot? Or you fire your entire advertising sales staff for collectively stealing from you? There is rarely anything worse than when your colleagues let you down in a huge way. A bitter disappointment.

• Or dealing with a competitor who has unlimited funds and a grudge against you? You go to work every day expecting this bully to ruin your day. You just slog through it.

All these things have happened to me and none were any fun.

But you deal with them and you survive.

Why So Few Entrepreneurs?

There is a reason that less than 20 percent of the population is entrepreneurial. That reason is that most people don’t want to deal with problems like these. Or they have seen their parents struggle with problems like this or friends or neighbors or whomever.

Thus, they end up working for other people. Or for the government. Or getting advanced degrees and doing research. And believe me, there is nothing wrong with any of these fields. There were times when I wished that I could pass along my problems to some “boss” rather than having to live with them and having to solve them myself. The buck always stopped at my desk.

My personal business guru is Powell, Wyoming, native W. Edwards Deming, who is given credit for turning around the Japanese economy after World War II.

Deming says “what gets measured, gets done.”

He also says you have succeeded when your customers say positive things about you. “Do the unexpected so that your customer brags about you,” he said.

When American industrial titans visited Japan in the 1980s, they were stunned to see how well Japanese factories produced stuff right the first time. Although Deming probably didn’t coin this phrase, he no doubt lived it: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over again?”

Dave Reetz reminded me of when he and fellow banker Dick Nelson put on “Deming” symposiums in Powell. Great idea and one that should be considered for statewide Wyoming meetings today.

As a newspaper publisher, I have seen scores of businesses go under because their owners didn’t understand the 80:20 rule. What this means, is that usually 80 percent of your business will come from 20 percent of your product line. Or 80 percent of your sales will come from 20 percent of your customers.

Often, you would see a retailer selling that first 20 percent and not re-stocking it, because he or she still thinks they had a full store. Only problem was the products their customers wanted weren’t there any more. They quit coming back and soon, that building owner was looking for a new tenant.

Here's What You Need To Do

If I could think of ten things for entrepreneurs to do, it would be the following:

1. Networking. Get acquainted with people who are successful in your line of work.

2.  Most successful new businesses are “incubated” from other existing businesses. Odds greatly improve when this happens.

3. Why re-invent the wheel? Take somebody else’s successful model and try to improve on it.

4. Barter – try to preserve your cash. Can you trade something to someone else for something you need?

5. Mentors -- if you like a business, find somebody who does it and spend some time with him or her. Buy them lunch or coffee -- most people like to talk about their business. If they aren’t your competitor, be open with them and tell them your idea.

6. Remember, your unique idea is usually one of two things: It really is unique. Or it really is a bad idea.

7. Cash, cash, cash. You have to manage the cash.  This is no knock against bankers, but you must remember their job is to treat their money safely. They truly will loan you an umbrella when the sun is shining, don’t talk to them when it is raining. Your suppliers will become your bankers. You must get your customers to pay you promptly.

8. Good accounting is absolute must. You MUST know how you are doing. You people in retail can go gaga over all that cash in your cash register right after you open. But soon you must re-stock.

9. We can’t really talk about business success without talking about luck. My favorite saying here, is one that I really believe: “The harder I worked, the luckier I got.”

10. Surround yourself with happy, successful, and loyal people.

Owning and running your own business is one of the great joys in life. Despite what I have written here about clinker situations, I found the good times far outweighed the bad ones. Good luck.

Bill Sniffin can be reached at:

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.